Imagine a future where your furniture flies, reacting and responding to your everyday needs. You could have an almost-sentient desk that jets off when it feels you're over-working, or a remote control that floats over when you think you've lost it.
In an interactive project dubbed "L'evolved," Harshit Agrawal and Sang-Won Leigh, two researchers from the MIT Media Lab's Fluid Interfaces Group, are exploring how to make everyday objects transform into "flying smart agents."
"We really look at this as a way of making the objects around us kind of speak with us," Agrawal said. "In the sense that they somehow know what they are doing, so they might prevent you from doing something wrong or light up your path in a dark environment."
So far, their project features drones acting as flying tables that adjust to your height, fly away once you're done, or auto-eject if you start using the wrong pen on your homework. They also have a lampshade drone that hovers above you, focusing light on where you need it when you're reading a book in the dark.
To power their flying furniture, the pair used a motion capture system where a camera tracks everything in the room—including the person and the drone, which receives commands from the computer.
"The computer knows where the drone wants to go by tracking where the person is," explained Leigh. "We are feeding that data from the computer to the drone so that it can move smoothly to the required position."
Currently, the duo faces two main challenges: stabilizing the drone, and feeding it a regular power supply (at the moment, it's connected to a power socket).
"It's like the world that you imagine in the Harry Potter novels, where everything can fly and come to you."
Drones can't support much weight yet, so the team opted for a paper tabletop. They soon found, however, that if they placed the tabletop directly on top of the drone, it blocked airflow. To solve this problem, they made the distance between the drone base and its paper tabletop greater so it could keep flying.
Agrawal said that in the future, they could optimize stability by replacing a hovering desk with one that parks in front of users when they need it, then clears off when the user has finished their task.
Ultimately, the researchers are set on enchanting everyday appliances so that they surpass their limitations as static objects, and have a more socially collaborative relationship with their human owners.
"We're exploring a future where objects become more humanised, rather than becoming dumber or a dehumanized element of our existence. We want to see more of this inter-relational reaction between humans and objects so that they're not just being subordinated by our orders," said Leigh. "If you think about it it's really magical, it's like the world that you imagine in the Harry Potter novels, where everything can fly and come to you."
But with the risk of hackable devices and AI, could we be facing a scene like that one in the Disney film Fantasia, where Mickey the wizard-mouse summons, commands, then ultimately loses control of his household appliances?
"A lot of people picture that kind of dystopian future, but we think that that future is one of many possible futures," said Leigh. "I think that the future of machines is not necessarily one where a machine becomes evil and tries to subordinate us. We wanted to show how a collaboration between machines and humans can be more synergistic. We want to give an example of a brighter future."